I am always grieving. I am always saying goodbye. I lost you without having you, but I still made a place for you. Right there, you see? Not a shelf or a pedestal, but a warm depression on the couch where you could sit while I read, or an angle for you to lean against if we sat back to back, dreaming. That place is empty. It’s not like a cut, or gauging your ears. I can’t make it heal over. I can’t make it shrink. So it just stays, empty. It just stays, and I grieve your absence, and think, “how selfish of me.”
I think I should have felt something when I walked across the stage in my yellow cap and gown. When the principal handed me the empty diploma cover, I didn’t return her plaster smile. There was nothing to return. There wasn’t even an “at least, I’m done,” to go along with the ceremony. I’d felt that on the last day of classes saying good bye to the other seniors and the teachers I’d actually miss.
I don’t think it was that high school was hell. I don’t think it was the fact that the diploma cover held nothing, as an insurance that we didn’t run amok as soon as the principal handed it over. It was that the entire ritual was hollow for me. It was a show, make it look good for the parents, get the photo op, pantomime happiness, fake triumph. The real event went unmarked, the last day of class, the forbidden feeling of relief that it was all over.
It wasn’t the first time, either. It wasn’t the last. Christmas after Christmas, not simply because of my atheism, but because the good will toward man meant nothing in the face of Tickle-Me Elmo. Weddings. Birthdays.
Ritual is a strange creature— it is a beast of made meaning, and we are its makers. There is something very human in the symbol, the stand-in, the substitution, and even today, ritual is everywhere. Or it should be, and isn’t. Or it should be, and goes oddly marked. Or it is, and I simply couldn’t connect. A wheel of tinny sounding events, litanies of names at ceremonies of induction, bored to tears. Was this ritual? Yes, it was, and it was the only face of ritual I knew until I finally I went to a burn.
It is not a carnival. It is not a show, nor a festival. It is a village. Sometimes a city. It is a wonderland. It is a weekend, or a week, and it is a playground that you build. And the night of the burn itself, we sit in a wide circle around an effigy, waiting. And we wait in affable talkativity. The effigy itself? That year, it was shaped like a Tibetan prayer wheel, an act of wild appropriation, uneasy and beautiful. It did not spin, its column dotted with holes. I participated: semi-quoting Ursula K. Le Guin on its surface in chalk: slyly styling writers as liars… because we are.
And the rite began. Our fire performers, our shamans of flame, our magicians of heat and light, converged, circled, and slung burning Kevlar about their bodies, encircled themselves in blazing hoops, exhaled the breath of dragons around our impostor prayer wheel, until all had gone round, but the last: mayhem unleashed in a rocket staff, lit up like New Year’s, and sparks flew twirling and popping, crackle bang flash! And then, and then…
We held our breaths. The wheel itself was lit. It was a slow fire, licking it from the middle, lighting it lantern-like through all its little holes, but soon it roared, hungry for the sky, the night, our breath. When the structure had collapsed, it was raked into a bonfire, and we broke like maenads circling, whooping, shrieking, laughing, crying.
That was when it struck me. We made this. This was ours, not in the sense that it belonged to us, because it didn’t, but in the sense that this was of us, this village, this temporary home, this fire and light and music. This was ritual connected, a completed circuit, alive and electric and filled with mystery. No more empty ceremony. No more blank stares and stiff clothes. Instead, living, breathing, flaming community, making meaning of our entropy, making ashes and dust.
And it lives differently in each body, sits expectantly in every form: a different event, a different ritual ready to unlock it. I could taste it there, suddenly, and then… another would hold the vastness of all silence in a game of shesh besh and a cup of tea placed just so. Ritual is the strangest beast.
This wasn’t the three-story building I had known. The outdoor hallways were gone, the dusty science classrooms and the feeling of decay from the 40’s and 50’s were washed away by a torrential downpour and high winds, damaged in the hurricane. This building here wasn’t my school–but then, it had never been my school. I never belonged there, at least not within the boundaries they defined.
It was my school when I walked barefoot to the bus stop, my feet concealed by the absurd length of my skater jeans. It was my school when I felt the tile on my toes and when I hopped into Amy’s Beast, a quad-cab pick-up, and we cut out for lunch or maybe to Sarasota or sometimes just to the rest stop on the highway south of there. But that tile is gone, and so are the moments when that place was mine.
I remember the terra cotta color, sealed smooth, and the works of high school art hung on the walls, and the old auditorium, unairconditioned, and peeping open. I remember barefoot in the library, sneaking glimpses at Le Guin when I should have been in working equations. I remember Taoist feminist anarchist ideas dripping through the denseness of dull days made bright from my shoelessness.
I had walked the open air campus from portable classroom to great green space where the cafeteria once stood, grass crushing between my toes. I remember the well-walked dirt patches where the grass would never grow again, and the color of my soles at the end of the day. I remember shrub gardens made for class-skipping, now bulldozed and built-over. And honestly, honestly, when all’s wrapped and packaged for the end of the day, I don’t miss it. Because those moments are still mine: the feeling of bus aisles under naked toes, the roughness of the street back from the bus stop on black leathery calluses, the transition of in through the front door onto long slats edge to edge of hardwood floors. In those unhappy days, the soles of my feet got to see all the best parts.
I was asleep when you texted me, but when I rolled over and saw that it was you, I smiled.
“Oh they used to argue over times, many corporate driver years lost to it: homeowners, red-faced and sweaty with their own lies, stinking of Old Spice
“and job-related stress, standing in their glowing yellow doorways brandishing their Seikos and waving at the clock over the kitchen sink, I swear, can’t
“you guys tell time?”
I paused over the three messages, arrived all at once. “That is gorgeous,” I replied, trying to recall why it was so familiar.
“Neal Stephenson,” you replied.
Wait… I still couldn’t place it. “Which novel?”
“Snow Crash,” you said.
“You should, too.”
And so I crept from my bed to my bookshelf, let my fingers hover over the titles, searching it out, and there is was, between The People of the Sea by David Thomson and Margaret Atwood’s Morning in the Burned House, yellow spine cracked and wrinkled. All of Sumer came tumbling back, neurolinguistic hacking, burbclaves and loglo and you texting me passage after passage.
I curled up with book and phone, cradling them both like a child’s stuffed toy, reading the screen and hearing your voice speaking into my inner ear the cyberpunk myth cycle. And I dove through the text, swimming through random pages, led by the invention of your voice. Every word had your intonation, and I could see your mouth forming the words, you enunciating as you do while singing a song.
“Vitaly owns half a carton of Lucky Strikes, an electric guitar, and a hangover.”
I fell asleep, listening to the ghost of your voice, my copy of Snow Crash clutched teddy-bear style. I’d worry about folded pages come daylight. That night, the bedtime story was enough.